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We can’t control the challenges our children will face in life, but that doesn’t mean we can’t prepare them. One of the most powerful gifts we can give our kids is resilience—the ability to overcome the inevitable obstacles headed their way.
Helping kids develop resilience means they will be able to recover from setbacks, rather than wallowing in them. Unfortunately, there are a lot of well-meaning things parents say that can inadvertently hinder this developing skill.
Avoid these 10 phrases to help your child develop resilience:
1. “You’re fine.”
While “you’re fine,” may seem like just the kind of phrase to encourage grit and resilience, it’s actually sending the message that kids can’t trust what they’re feeling. This is another version of”suck it up.”
Instead, try validating your child’s emotions, while using your tone and body language to send the message that you believe they will be okay. If your child falls and scrapes their knee, you can empathize and check on them without acting like it’s an emergency. Don’t run over and swoop them off their feet while crying tears of your own. Walk over calmly and take a look at the scrape, asking if they are okay.
This approach lets your child know that while, yes, they are hurt, their feelings are okay and they will recover.
2. “Let me fix it.”
Whether it’s because we’re in a hurry or because it’s so hard to watch our children struggle, it’s easy to want to fix their problems. This doesn’t mean you can’t help and support them, just try not to take over.
If they’re having trouble tying their shoes, it feels easier to simply do it for them than to standby and see if they really need a little help. If they are struggling with a friend, you might want to talk to the other child’s parent and try to fix things behind the scenes than let your child navigate the situation. But doing these things will only hurt in the long run.
Offer the minimum amount of help they need to be successful. Instead of simply tying their shoe for them, try offering verbal support, saying something like “now make a bunny ear.” If they’re still struggling, offer to tie one shoe for them and let them try the other shoe.
Watch your child to see how much they can handle. You want to challenge them, but not overwhelm them. There will of course be times when you don’t have time to let your child do something for themselves, and that’s fine too. Maybe there’s no time for your child to tie their own shoes in the morning before school, but they can practice on the weekends. As they become more capable, they can do more and more for themselves.
3. “That’s easy, you can do it.”
While this little phrase might seem encouraging, telling a child something that seems challenging is easy will only take away their desire to try. Instead of telling them a task is easy, try “I know that’s hard, but I think you can do it.” This emphasizes their ability to overcome hard things.
4. “You might fall.”
It’s not fun to watch our kids fall and get hurt, but when you see your child doing something that makes you uncomfortable, try to assess the situation.
Are they likely to get injured, or just get a little bump or a bruise? Is there a way you can spot your child to protect them without them noticing? By constantly telling our children to be careful, or that they might fall, we are sending the message that they are not safe.
Every parent has to use their judgement and own comfort level with risk. If you see your toddler starting to climb up a slide and a big kid is at the top about to go down, you will likely want to stop them so they don’t get kicked. But if you see your toddler climbing a ladder on the playscape for the first time, try simply being there to catch them if they fall, without letting them see your fear.
What you’re comfortable with will likely change with your child’s age, but it’s important for them to learn to assess risk for themselves so that they can determine when they really aren’t safe, and when it’s okay to take a little risk to try something new.
5. “I give up.”
Perhaps the most important tool for teaching resilience is modeling. Does your child see you give up easily or get upset when you try something new, or do they see you staying calm in the face of challenges? It’s important to let your child see you struggle, and let them see that it’s okay.
Try learning a new skill together so that they can see that this sometimes frustrating process is not just for kids, that everyone faces struggles when learning something new.
We want to teach our kids how to calm themselves down when they’re upset, but saying “calm down” isn’t the way to do this. Try saying, “let’s take a deep breath together” instead. Or even look your child in the eyes and take a few deep, calming breaths yourself.
We can gradually equip our kids with specific techniques to regulate their emotions. This might mean practicing deep breathing together, or asking for a hug or hugging a favorite stuffed animal. It might mean stepping outside to take a break from a situation and experience the calming effects of nature.
Help your child develop these tools when they’re not too upset to hear you. Eventually, they will learn to turn to them when it feels like things are in crisis.
7. “I packed all your things for you!”
Making life too easy for our kids robs them of the chance to face the minor challenges and discomforts that help to naturally develop resilience.
You can help your child gradually take over the responsibility for these tasks. For a 3-year-old, you might remind them to carry their lunchbox and backpack to the car in the morning, instead of carrying their things for them.
For a 6-year-old, it might look like creating a checklist together of all of the things they need to remember in the morning, but putting them in charge of going through the checklist.
A 9-year-old might be able to take full responsibility for remembering their things, but this of course depends on the child.
Gradually increasing their level of responsibility will help them be successful. We love our children so of course we want them to be comfortable and happy and to have a great day every day, but in the end, it’s more important to equip them with the tools they need for the not-so-good days.
8. “That’s too hard for you.”
Children try to do things that they may not be ready for all the time. They might reach for a 1,000piece puzzle, they might want to help you with a “grown-up task” like building a new shelf or fixing something on the car.
It’s easy to tell kids that something is too hard for them, or that they’re not ready to do something, but try steering them to a more age-appropriate task instead. You might say, “It takes a lot of practice to get ready for a 1,000 piece puzzle, why don’t we try the new 100 piece one you got for your birthday together?” Or, “I can’t let you use my power tools, but let me show you how to use a hammer and you can practice on this piece of wood.”
Saying these phrases directs children toward something they can be successful with, without sending the message we think they’re incapable.
9. “Not like that!”
Take note of how often you find yourself saying some variation of “not like that!” to your child. It’s so tempting to stop them when we see them doing something wrong like holding their fork in such a way that spaghetti is about to fall all over their shirt or putting their shoes on the wrong feet.
But why not let them drop the spaghetti, then let them clean it up? Why not let them wear their shoes on the wrong feet so that they have a feeling of accomplishment rather than incompetence?
It’s okay if things aren’t done perfectly, it’s okay if our kids have to stop and clean up a mess.
In these instances, sit with your child while they clean it up, helping if necessary. You can then show them a more effective way to complete a task. You might say, “Can I show you a trick? If you hold your plate with two hands, you won’t drop it next time.”
10. “You figure it out.”
While we want to send the message that we believe our children are competent, this doesn’t mean they’re on their own. On the contrary, children will be more likely to feel like they can try something new and face a challenge if they know they have support.
Instead of sending them off on their own to face a tough situation, let them know that you’re in it together. Say something like, “Let’s sit down and come up with a solution together.”
Involve them in the process, but let them know you’re there to help too.
Resilience is a tough quality to teach because it involves watching our kids struggle, even watching them fail. This can be a hard thing for parents to do, but remind yourself that you’re not making your child struggle, you’re letting them struggle.
You are allowing them to face everyday challenges so that when the big challenges come, your child will know that they can face the challenge and be okay.
Fostering resilience isn’t an easy task. We’ve included some thoughtful tools to help, mama!